In the 19th century, progressive artists used the French phrase, “l’art pour l’art,” or, “art for art’s sake,” to describe a style that revered the aesthetic quality of art and resisted a prevailing idea that art should be profound. A couple centuries later, some University students and area artists are rejecting the purely stylistic stance and bourgeois snootiness with protest art. Two Residential College courses, as well as Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Detroit groups and individuals have been working cooperatively to put together a night of visual art, poetry and music that rallies behind a new slogan — art for people’s sake.
A free show at 8 p.m. Saturday in the Michigan League Underground will feature area artists committed to nonviolence and creative expression. Anticipating an evening of awareness and dialoguing, RC junior Negin Salmasi, who is involved with the exhibition, hopes the show will make people realize that art can be a nonviolent tool for social activism, and that it will spur talk about issues presented at the show.
The class Protest Art began in October as a study of the Black Arts movement with RC professor Helen Fox and soon evolved into an independent study course centered on community-based art. Fox asked the students to examine an issue associated with nonviolence movements and share it with the community. The students discussed modern art trends, such as grafitti, murals and sticker art, and the way in which getting involved with these types of art movements becomes a protest in itself. Their studies were intended to find a way to bridge the gap between art and politics.
The show, which is a culmination of the group’s course work for the entire semester, focuses on a theme of nonviolence. The works are meant to make social issues more accessible to the public through art and evoke a reaction from audience members that might produce further dialogue. School of Art students as well as Protest Art students have contributed pieces to the show. For example, one artist showcases an unfinished artwork that will develop throughout the night as audience members are invited to add to the work.
Ann Arbor hip-hop group Athletic Mic League, Detroit’s DJ Finale and local alt-rock group Lobby Music will provide the musical entertainment at the show. Besides music, there will be a performance artist and readings by local poets, members of Ann Arbor poetry group Wordworks, and some U-Club poetry slam participants. Throughout the evening visual art will be displayed around the Underground.
E-mails, flyers and word of mouth were part of a massive networking effort to mobilize people. “We basically talked to everyone we knew and they talked to people,” Salmasi explains. “We were contacting friends of friends of friends of friends and trying to get the widest base possible.”
Getting that base included looking beyond the University community. The University organizes many events to raise social awareness, but many of them are catered strictly to students. Besides featuring artists from other cities and schools — including Eastern Michigan University’s cathARTic revolution collective — the show is all ages. “We’re trying to get high schoolers to come; we’re trying to get older community members to come,” Salmasi says. “Just to have that dialogue — there’s so much that younger people can bring and older people can bring.”
RC junior Caitlin Brown, who is part of the Protest Art independent study, agrees the bridging of communities is an important point of the evening. Besides the goal of exposing art as a tool for social activism, Brown sees the show as being a venue where people can come together. “Expressing social justice is a part, but another big part is the community of it — having everyone come together for this night.”
Fox recognizes the hard work of her students and predicts a successful show. “The intense student interest in creative protest, nonviolence, and social justice is inspiring to me, and I think to many of the older generation of activists on campus. My students have put together a wonderful show that will bring people together across communities and issues as well as helping us all relax after a hectic and emotional semester.”
Though the exhibition ends at midnight, the live music — and awareness — will carry on at Jones Co-op, where New Jersey organization HEP/CAT — homeless empowerment project community action team — is throwing an afterparty that will mix East Coast artists including Random Test and Verbalz with local acts like NowOn and Iggy Ignotius. Entry is five dollars, or three with clothing or a can of food; all money and items will benefit Ann Arbor’s Delonis Homeless Shelter.